Huge crowds greeted the Vuelta a Espana today as it returned to the Basque Country after a 33-year absence, cheering on local hero Igor Anton of Euskaltel-Euskadi as he rode to a fine solo victory in Bilbao. Movistar's Marzio Bruseghin was second, 41 seconds down, with Liquigas rider Dominik Nerz winning a three-way sprint for third. Juan Jose Cobo of Geox-TMC responded to attacks from Team Sky's Chris Froome and remains 13 seconds ahead at the top of the general classification.
It’s been a disappointing Vuelta for the Basque team – Anton, who last year crashed out of the race while in the overall lead, had been installed by the bookmakers as the pre-race favourite this year, but failed to live up to his billing in a difficult first two weeks of the race.
All that was forgotten this afternoon as the 28-year-old rode into the port city to win the fourth Vuelta stage of his career, his margin of victory allowing him to bask – what else? – in the adulation of the legions of fans crammed behind the barriers either side of the approach to the line.
Bilbao may have been transformed beyond all recognition since the Vuelta last visited – if Frank Gehry’s iconic, unmistakeable Guggenheim Museum is the most visible sign of that, it's more subtle political changes that have allowed the race to return – but the crowds that greeted Anton’s victory made it look as though the race had never been away from the city where the overall winner was crowned between 1955 and 1970.
The passionate orange-clad Basque fans, so familiar from the big Pyrenean climbs in the Tour de France but seldom seen in those numbers in the Vuelta, were out in force too on the main ascent of the day, the Category 2 Alto El Vivero.
That was tackled twice on a big loop around Bilbao before the descent and run-in to the finish, giving the tail end of the stage a similar feel to the closing kilometres of the Clasica San Sebastian.
By the time the climb was ridden for the second time, with the summit crested 14 kilometres from the finish, Anton had broken clear from what had been a four man breakaway group including his team mate Gorka Verdugo, Movistar’s Marzio Bruseghin and Astana’s Alexsandr Dyachenko.
That quartet had got away shortly after the day’s first intermediate sprint, 23.5 kilometres into the 158.5 kilometre stage, where Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez, who took the green jersey back from Rabobank’s Bauke Mollema yesterday, picking up maximum points to consolidate his lead in the points competition.
With 5 kilometres left, Anton had an advantage of just over half a minute over Bruseghin, his closest pursuer, and it was clear that he was going to carry the day.
Today’s stage also represented perhaps the best chance in the last three stages for Team Sky’s Froome to try and overturn the 13-second lead that Cobo enjoyed in the general classification.
The British team had men at the front of the main bunch in numbers on the first ascent of the Alto El Vivero, as though rehearsing the second time they would ride up the climb, when it was Bradley Wiggins who came to the front, with Froome tucked in behind him and the vigilant Cobo never far away.
In the latter part of the climb, Froome put in a big attack, only one man managing to go with him – but it was Cobo, the one man he wanted to drop. The Kenyan-born British rider went again towards the summit, but it was too late to even hope of getting a meaningful gap, and the Spaniard again was quick to shut it down.
The last climb on tomorrow’s Stage 20 to Vitoria is a Category 1, taking the riders up to a plateau from which there are 45 pretty flat kilometres to the finish, making it highly unlikely that Froome would be able to get away from Cobo and stay away.
Vuelta Stage 19 Result
1 ANTON, Igor Euskaltel-Euskadi 3h 53' 34'' 2 BRUSEGHIN, Marzio Movistar + 41'' 3 NERZ, Dominik Liquigas-Cannondale + 1' 30'' 4 ZUBELDIA, Haimar RadioShack + 1' 30'' 5 SÖRENSEN, Chris Saxo Bank-SunGard + 1' 31'' 6 DE LA FUENTE, David Geox-TMC + 1' 33'' 7 FUGLSANG, Jakob Leopard Trek + 1' 33'' 8 NIBALI, Vincenzo Liquigas-Cannondale + 1' 33'' 9 CAPECCHI, Eros Liquigas-Cannondale + 1' 33'' 10 MOLLEMA, Bauke Rabobank + 1' 33'' 11 LAGUTIN, Sergey Vaconsoleil-DCM + 1' 33'' 12 MORENO, Daniel Katusha + 1' 33'' 13 MARTIN, Daniel Garmin-Cervelo + 1' 33'' 14 ROCHE, Nicolas AG2R La Mondiale + 1' 33'' 15 NIEVE, Mikel Euskaltel-Euskadi + 1' 33'' 16 FROOME, Christopher Team Sky + 1' 33'' 17 COBO, Juan José Geox-TMC + 1' 33'' 18 WIGGINS, Bradley Team Sky + 1' 33'' 19 VAN DEN BROECK, Jurgen Omega Pharma-Lotto + 1' 33'' 20 ROHREGGER, Thomas Leopard Trek + 1' 33'' Vuelta Overall Standings after Stage 19 1 COBO, Juan José Geox-TMC 77h 59' 12'' 2 FROOME, Christopher Team Sky + 13'' 3 WIGGINS, Bradley Team Sky + 1' 41'' 4 MOLLEMA, Bauke Rabobank + 2' 03'' 5 MENCHOV, Denis Geox-TMC + 3' 48'' 6 MONFORT, Maxime Leopard Trek + 4' 13'' 7 NIBALI, Vincenzo Liquigas-Cannondale + 4' 31'' 8 VAN DEN BROECK, Jurgen Omega Pharma-Lotto + 4' 45'' 9 MORENO, Daniel Katusha + 5' 20'' 10 NIEVE, Mikel Euskaltel-Euskadi + 5' 33''
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.